Come from Away
Home of the Arts
July 2 – 31
“Come From Away” is the type of musical you can easily see multiple times (as I have now done), such is the joyousness of its experience and its always-applicable reminder about the human spirit’s triumph over adversity. The musical is quite unlike any other, not just because of the heart and soul that operates at its core. There are a lot of moving parts to its achievement ….. literally. Not only is there a revolve stage, but Beowulf Borritt’s apparently simple scenic design of a collection of chairs is anything but, as they are seamlessly repositioned to create all range of settings, including the transportation that brings the ‘plane people’ to the remote government and airport town at the centre of the extraordinary tale.
The documusical (book, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein) tells theremarkable real-life story of stranded September 11 passengers and the small edge-of-the-Atlantic island town in Newfoundland (off the north east tip of Canada) that welcomed them when 38 planes were ordered to land there unexpectedly as part of closing United States airspace, effectively expanding the town’s population from 9000 to 16000 people overnight.
Not only are chairs moved about in transition from plane to community centre and local tavern scenes, but simple props and jacket and hat type costume changes allow the ensemble cast of 12 performers to jump in and out of roles as the scared and exhausted international plane passengers, and the Gander townspeople alike. Choreography not only allows for flawless transformations, but uses stylised movement to pause scenes in striking tableaus of reactions and responses, such as to transition things through the hours and hours that passengers were kept aboard before being permitted to deplane. And Howell Binkley’s lighting design gives some memorable moments such as when it is used to create the effect of frantic traffic controllers all at individual devices.
The performers are all excellent and authentic in their multiple roles, thanks, in part, to the work of dialect coach Joel Goldes. Indeed, cast members are all incredibly versatile in their talents, assuming so many character parts. Ash Roussett is a vocal standout as Kevin T, particularly in the emotional ballad ‘Prayer’ which sees several characters make their way to houses of worship around the town. Jasmine Vaughns gives a moving performance as Hannah, mother of a missing Manhattan firefighter, delivering a soulfully emotional ‘I Am Here’, in reflection of the helplessness she feels not knowing of his fate. And Noni McCallum projects an endearing charm as the warm-hearted and empathetic local Beulah who bonds with Hannah over the fact that both of their sons are firefighters.
There is also a great deal of humour. Kyle Brown’s comic timing makes native New Yorker Bob’s scepticism as funny as it is endearing as he struggles to understand the kindness of the Canadian strangers. And Kat Harrison makes the character of Bonner her own, capturing the animal carer’s manic determination to take care of the animals on board the grounded flights, without venturing into dogmatism
Tight pacing means that the show’s 100 minutes duration (no interval) flies by. Even so, the story does not shy away from difficult aspects such as its reminder of the anti-Muslim sentiment that followed the 2001 attacks. This handled well through the quietly dignified Ali, thanks to an appropriately-pitched performance from Joseph Naim; as well as seeing the fellow-passenger fear and suspicious growing around him, we are witness also to the compassion shown by American Airlines captain Beverley Bass (Alana Tranter), American Airlines’ first female captain.
While the score contains only 15 songs, under Michael Tyack AM’s musical direction, it seems like the music never stops between the opening ‘Welcome to the Rock’ describing the town of Gander, to the tearfully reflective ‘Finale’ in which characters reunite to celebrate the lifelong friendships and strong connections they formed in spite of the terrorist attacks. A range of musical influences within August Eriksmoen’s orchestrations and arrangements sweep the story along through traditional Irish, American folk and sea-shanty type songs, to name but a few, and appropriately the end-of-show standing ovation continues beyond acknowledgment of the cast to celebration of the on-stage band members.
A high point comes from the fiddle-filled ‘Screech In’, during which the Newfoundlanders host a party for their guests, complete with an initiation ceremony involving a shot of the province’s 40% alcohol rum and other traditions, the second of its fiddle-filled drinking songs. There is also Tranter’s inspirational ‘Me and the Sky’, in which Bass attempts to reconcile her once optimistic view of the world with how it has suddenly changed. Again, the tone is well tempered, with up-tempo numbers sitting alongside more moving numbers, like when, in ‘Lead Us Out of the Night’, the passengers finally get to see what has actually happened for themselves and watch helpless, barely knowing where they are but still thankful it is not there.
“Come From Away” weaves together a rich tapestry of charm in all of its aspects. At the centre of the Tony and Olivier Award winning Canadian musical is its beautiful storytelling. The fact that it is the story of ordinary people (while some characters are amalgamated all are based on real testimony), makes it all the more captivating. And its messaging about how to welcome those who may be different to us is inspiring in the warmest of fuzzy, feel-good ways.